Robertson, John (1816-1891) (DNB00)

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ROBERTSON, Sir JOHN (1816–1891), Australian statesman, third son of James Robertson, was born at Bow, London, on 15 Oct. 1816. The father was a friend of Governor Sir Thomas Makdougall-Brisbane [q. v.], by whom he was induced to settle in New South Wales in 1820. He received a grant of 2,500 acres of land, and settled as a squatter on the Upper Hunter River. Himself a Scots presbyterian, Robertson placed his son John under the care of John Dunmore Lang [q. v.] John was afterwards educated at private schools, and at sixteen, contrary to his parents' wishes, became a sailor. Having some knowledge of navigation and a reputation as a good boatman, he was in 1833 taken on as a paid hand on board the Sovereign, trading with London. Among the letters which the ship carried home was one to a tenant on Lord Palmerston's estate. Lord Palmerston in some way got to know of it, sent for Robertson, took a fancy to him, and wrote to the governor of the colony on his behalf. But Robertson, for the present bent on further travel, visited Scotland, Ireland, and France, and returned to Australia through South America. Arriving at Sydney in the course of 1835, he settled down at once to a squatter's life in the Liverpool plains, outside the area of police protection and government regulation. Realising the inconvenience and danger of the situation, he took a prominent part in a petition to the governor for better regulations (1836). The governor was opposed to the formation of fresh settlements at the time. Thereupon the squatters sent Robertson as their representative to the governor on the subject (1837). The success of his mission at once brought him into prominence as an advocate of squatters' rights. He declined, however, to associate himself with the movement, started about the same time by the Pastoral Association, for vesting the freehold of the land in the squatters; and ultimately he split with his old friend Wentworth on the nomination of the latter to the legislative council for the purpose of furthering the aims of the freehold party.

In 1855 Robertson was a witness before Sir Henry Parkes's committee on agriculture, and wrote an important paper on land reform at its request. At the first election under the constitution of 1856 he was returned in the liberal interest, although in precarious health, for the counties of Phillip, Brisbane, and Bligh. In his address he advocated manhood suffrage, vote by ballot, equal distribution of seats, and a national system of education, as well as free selection of the lands of the colony. Robertson's first active political work was his effort to amend the land bill of Sir Terence Aubrey Murray [q. v.] in 1857. At first he stood practically alone, but pursuing his object with great tenacity, and taking advantage of some difference of opinion among his opponents, he brought about a dissolution on the question. He joined the new Cowper government as secretary for lands and public works in January 1858. He immediately dealt provisionally with all outstanding applications for land, and introduced a land bill, the consideration of which was postponed by the dissolution of April 1859 on the electoral question. During the session of 1859 he carried through the Increased Rental Assessment Act, which led to much difference in the ministry, and eventually to its resignation. He took an active part in amending the Forster land bill early in 1860, and, on the retirement of the Forster administration, was ultimately sent for by the governor, and formed his first ministry on 9 March 1860. Later on he induced Charles Cowper, his colonial secretary, to become again the leader of the party, the ministry otherwise remaining unchanged. He now introduced his own land bill, which was defeated in the legislative council. In order to assure the passage of the bill he resigned his seat in the assembly, and was nominated to the reformed legislative council. He was thus enabled, in the teeth of fierce opposition, to carry the bill which was for many years the land law of New South Wales. He went out of office on 15 Oct. 1863.

Robertson's next great political fight was on the side of free trade. In 1864 he contested and won West Sydney for the free-traders, but shortly afterwards resigned the seat in order to attend to private business. In January 1865 he was again elected for West Sydney, and was minister of lands in the fourth Cowper administration from 3 Feb. 1865 to 21 Jan. 1866.

On 27 Oct. 1868 Robertson became premier again, and this time, though he induced his friend Cowper to take office, retained the premiership himself throughout the administration, which lasted till 15 Dec. 1870, and was marked by the passage of several measures which he had foreshadowed in his first electioneering speech. After joining the ministry of Sir James Martin [q. v.] (December 1870–May 1872) as colonial secretary—a step condemned by some of his friends—Robertson was on 9 Feb. 1875 again called upon to form a ministry himself. In this administration he acted as treasurer as well as colonial secretary, and remained in office till 21 March 1877, when he was defeated and resigned. The Parkes ministry which followed him was shortlived. Robertson came into power for a fourth time on 17 Aug. 1877, but kept his party together for five months only. This unsettled state of politics disgusted the public; Robertson lost his seat for Sydney, but was elected for Mudgee (December 1877); the trouble was ended by his coalition with Sir Henry Parkes. Robertson resigned his seat in the assembly, and went to the legislative council; he was first simply vice-president of the executive council, later on minister of public instruction (1 May 1880), and afterwards minister of lands (29 Dec. 1881). The chief measure of this government was the public instruction act. On a land act introduced by Robertson, which was considered inadequate by the new reformers, the ministry was defeated (November 1881).

In 1882 Robertson re-entered the assembly as member for Mudgee, and the next session was marked by his bitter opposition to the new land acts, which he never ceased to condemn. In other directions his activity diminished, and when summoned by Lord Carrington in 1885 to form a new ministry, he could not hold his followers together for more than a few months. His health was failing, and in 1886 he retired from public life, honoured by a gift of 10,000l. from the New South Wales parliament in recognition of his services. When, in 1888, the second great struggle between protection and free trade took place, he so far broke his retirement as to propose the free-trade candidate for Sydney, and he latterly took a prominent part in opposition to the federation movement. His later years were spent in retirement at Clovelly, Watson's Bay, where he died on 8 May 1891. His body was brought to Sydney, and there accorded a public funeral, being buried at the South Head public cemetery, Watson's Bay. It was said of Robertson at his death that he was ‘the last of the old leaders.’ He was a remarkably handsome man, and his justice and fairness exacted tribute from his political opponents.

Robertson married, in 1837, Margaret Emma, daughter of J. J. Davies of Clovelly, Watson's Bay, and left two sons and four daughters; one of the latter married Sir George Macleay [see under Macleay, Alexander].

[Sydney Morning Herald, 9 and 11 May 1891; Heaton's Australian Dict. of Dates; Parkes's Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History.]

C. A. H.